WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama awarded retiring Secretary of Defense Robert Gates the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a farewell ceremony on Thursday morning.
"A humble American patriot; a man of common sense and decency; quite simply, one of our nation's finest public servants," Obama said of Gates.
Obama spoke at a departure ceremony outside the Pentagon. Leon Panetta has been named Gates' successor as Defense Secretary.
Gates was originally appointed by President George W. Bush in 2006 and retained by Obama, making him the only defense secretary in history to be asked to remain in office by a newly elected president, according to the Department of Defense.
Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke first at the ceremony, marked by a fife and drum corps passing in review and military service members standing in formation.
"He tells it straight. No bull," said Mullen.
Obama teased Gates -- who has served in various positions under four presidents -- saying he "loves" the Washington spotlight, but also highlighted his achievements as secretary.
"The integrity of Bob Gates is also a reminder, especially to folks here in Washington, that civility and respectful discourse and citizenship over partisanship are not quaint relics of a bygone era."
"We can only keep America strong if we remember what keeps America great."
Describing the award as not part of the announced program, Obama asked Gates to stand to receive the highest honor a president can bestow to a civilian.
Gates began his response by joking, "We should have known a couple months ago you're getting pretty good at this covert-ops stuff."
(Reporting by Molly O'Toole; Editing by Jerry Norton)